The raucous noise of the motor boats mixed with jubilant calls of greeting, rowdy laughs, cheerful conversations, and the shouts of merchants selling their wares to create a sound that was chaotic but vivid, out of tune but in high spirits, simple and genuine, so lovely and agreeable. This was the sound that always surrounded the ferry-landing in the western part of South Vietnam. This familiar, joyful, and dynamic sound followed me as it followed every other passenger who visited this warm and peaceful land.
After a day-long journey from Saigon back to Hoa Hao Village, I left my younger sisters running after good fruits, sticks of sugar cane, and fresh coconuts, and I went to rest on the wooden railings of a poor restaurant on the riverbank. The gentle breeze in the late afternoon blew away my fatigue.
Daydreaming, I gazed out over the small and large boats that were moored along the bank of the Hau River, and my eyes suddenly came to rest on a huge fishing boat. On the roof of the boat a cozy family scene unfolded. The fisherman's family was a big one: there were more than a dozen people sitting around a huge dinner tray, with only a large bowl of fermented salted tofu and and a plate of fresh sliced cucumbers. The vegetarian meal was quite simple, but the people ate it with delight. Someone would pick up a slice of cucumber and dip it into the salted tofu; someone else would be using chopsticks to hurry the the rice into his mouth while others put more rice into their bowls. The huge rice caldron became almost empty very quickly
The lively tableau of the family dinner brought me back to reality. I smiled and thought about the delicious vegetarian food that we could eat for free at the restaurants and reception centers that would be open to all visitors tomorrow, the day of the Great Festivity of May 18, the day Prophet Huynh Phu So had founded Hoa Hao Buddhism. This feast day is known as the Founding of the Faith.
The ferry arrived from the other side of the river and was about to enter the landing dock. Everyone became lively. I held the hands of my sisters, and we hurried to follow my parents onto the ferry. Today we took the ferry without buying tickets. All boats, canoes, ferries, and other public means of transportation in this area were offered free to all passengers for three days, the 17th, 18th, and 19th of May. This was one of the ways in which followers of Hoa Hao Buddhism expressed their devotion to mark the commemoration of the Founding of the Faith. Their only wish was that people would come together, back to the Holy Land, to rejoice in the festivities and blessings.
The ferry of Nang Gu was very small compared to the ferries in My Thuan, Can Tho, or Vam Cong. It was a flat barge with tugboats at its sides. On board the ferry, little peddlers walked back and forth inviting passengers to buy their products. I bought some peanut cones and colored paper fans from them. Today the ferry ran very slowly on the river, navigating the dense crowd of boats, sampans, and canoes carrying passengers and a myriad of fruits and products such as corns, yams, gourds, pumpkins, cucumbers, and cabbages. Passengers were bringing these and other fruits and vegetables from their yards and fields to the eating centers, in order to prepare free meals for all pilgrims and visitors.
The closer the ferry came to the Holy Land, the clearer the huge picture of Prophet Huynh Phu So appeare; and the more distinctly the chanting of poetic holy scriptures and teachings echoed through the loudspeakers of the several preaching halls. The warm-hearted and rhythmic poems resonated everywhere and touched my heart profoundly. I recited solemnly and in a low voice:
" I light the torch of compassion,
Seeking kind-hearted fellows and leading them to the house of Buddha.
For the love of good people, I teach the religion in the South,
Showing the way of kindness and avoidance of wrongdoing.
The Holy Books state clearly in Three Words:
Men are born with kind nature blessed by Heaven
But grow up to succumb to fame and wealth.
Bad habits overshadow their kind nature,
Lacking education, lacking moral virtues.
Thus I am determined to bring them back to their original nature..."
These verses begin the book Giac Me Tam Ke – The Gathas of Enlightenment - by Prophet Huynh Phu So. That was my very first poem learned by heart and taught by my parents when I was beginning to learn reading and writing. Those simple verses have been the torch illuminating my path ever since. Whatever the the time, place, and situation, I have always prayed and struggled to keep the kind nature with which Buddha and Heaven have blessed me since my birth into this world. And I have striven hard to correct my bad habits and wrong attitudes, in order to fulfil the duties of a follower of Hoa Hao Buddhism. These are the Four Great Debts of Gratitude: Gratitude to our Ancestors and Parents; Gratitude to our Country; Gratitude to the Three Jewels of Buddhism (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha); and Gratitude to our Countrymen and to Mankind.